Let’s get the punning out of the way, pronto: Eric Hopkins is a shellfish artist. To be more precise, he is a renderer, in many mediums, of shells and fish and shellfish, as the title of his show at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, “Eric Hopkins: Shells—Fish—Shellfish,” puts it.

And this fact may well be a revelation to visitors who only know Hopkins by way of his often transcendent aerial views of the Maine archipelago. Indeed, the exhibition makes a powerful case for a body of work deserving of equal attention and acclaim. 

The Bangor-born, North Haven-bred artist began exploring shells and fish as a youngster. The earliest piece in the show is a watercolor made in 1955 when Hopkins was four years old. While reflecting a boy’s fascination with fish—he has often told the story of painting directly on a codfish he had caught in order to keep its colors from fading, only to have his “artwork” disposed of by his mother when it began to stink—this piece of juvenilia already displays the energy of his later work, in particular, the darting fish with its craggy fin. 

Another early piece, a small figure made entirely of lobster shells from around 1965, is wonderfully humorous. Lobsterman has a Daumier-like quality—a caricature of a man who has eaten too much lobster perhaps. Yet this ingenious piece also demonstrates Hopkins’ love of experimenting with materials and shapes, a penchant that came alive at the Rhode Island School of Design where he made his first glass sculptures under the mentorship of Dale Chihuly.

Some of those glass pieces were based on shell and fish forms that Hopkins had studied growing up on North Haven. The examples in the show are exquisite: acid-etched blown glass with semi-translucent sand-blasted surfaces. A number of the spiral shapes are based on broken shells, as one would find them on the shore, fragments that bring to mind Anne Lindbergh’s A Gift from the Sea: “And my shells? I can sweep them all into my pocket. They are only there to remind me that the sea recedes and returns eternally.” 

Hopkins also proves himself the consummate sculptor. In a gallery alcove are displayed several of aerodynamic fish: sleek and slim shapes affixed to abstracted branches of seaweed. The pieces, from 1988, are made with cedar, oak and spruce, with applied gold and silver leaf and oil paint. By contrast, the oil-on-spruce Blue Fish, from the same year, has a less-finished look, its chunky abstracted shape swimming through the air in the middle of the main gallery.

There are many other treasures here, from the 77-inch-high painted spruce lobster claw that one encounters in the entrance hall to the gloriously expressionistic ink and oil Fish Eating Fish and the goggle-eyed Sacred Cod done in ink, watercolor, gouache and crayon. Two canoe paddles Hopkins painted for past Abbe Museum auctions highlight his sense of larger cosmic and ecological forces while a handful of personal objects, including Aunt Nettie’s smelt net and a halibut trawl, provide context to the artworks on display—and to the life of an artist brought up among islanders who made their living from the sea.

And viewers will enjoy perusing the artist’s collection of shells, fish skeletons, bird skulls and other natural artifacts displayed in a large glass case. Here are the shapes and forms that spoke to the artist. As Hopkins has related, “So many incredible and amazing visual forms were strewn around my range of vision.” His responses to these stimuli are not to be missed.   

“Eric Hopkins: Shells—Fish—Shellfish” is on view in the Carver Memorial Library Gallery at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport through Oct. 19. For hours and other information, visit www.penobscotmarinemuseum.org or call 548-2529.

Carl Little’s most recent book is William Irvine: A Painter’s Journey (Marshall Wilkes). He lives and writes on Mount Desert Island.